“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And finally it moved to America where it became an enterprise.” Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate
(*I drafted this post on 10/31/13, but never finished it. A two-part post by Donald Miller inspired me to come back here and finish this post, as well as draft a few more. I hope you’ll extend grace as I process my thoughts here, laying them out before the Lord, wrestling with them, and Him, as I take one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other, on this rugged, messy journey.)
It is not my intention to offend people, but in this post, it will absolutely happen, not because I want to hurt anyone, but because many of the items offend me, as well. And some I know I need to probably get over…
I’ve “blogged” this in my head for years, adding to it as more material arises from conversations, reading articles and books, traveling, and simply listening. Since I’ve kept it in all these years, it’s likely my head may implode…or, more tragically, my heart. And I think it’s exactly why I don’t regularly go to church anymore, not because I don’t totally love the Lord, or know I’m part of the Bride of Christ, but because I don’t buy into the enterprise model. I still fellowship with like believers, but since the enterprise model is more about me and what I want, I just find it inauthentic to encounter God when I’m being ushered in and out of a service, chop, chop.
So, anyway, here are things I’ve heard, and at different times, some I have even believed, though I do not anymore:
- “Real Christians” don’t do Yoga.
- “Real Christians” don’t participate in Halloween.
- “Real Christians” spank their kids.
- “Real Christians” homeschool their children.
- “Real Christians” only send their kids to public schools so they can be “missionaries.”
- “Real Christians” only send their kids to Christian schools.
- “Real Christians” only read from the King James Version of the Bible.
- “Real Christians” don’t get divorced.
- “Real Christians” go to church.
- “Real Christians” don’t go to church.
- “Real Christians” don’t drink alcohol.
- “Real Christians” don’t get inked.
- “Real Christians” don’t dance.
- “Real Christians” don’t drop f-bombs.
- “Real Christians” have specifically said “The Sinner’s Prayer.”
- “Real Christians” are only ones who have been baptized by submersion.
- “Real Christians” adopt orphans.
- “Real Christians” don’t hang out with people who aren’t “Christians.”
- “Real Christians” are evangelical ones, not liturgical ones.
- “Real Christians” are regular, Wednesday and Sunday night church goers.
- “Real Christians” volunteer regularly at church.
- “Real Christians” believe the Holy Spirit did His thing at Pentecost, so don’t believe “Christians” who DO pray in tongues are “Christians.”
- “Real Christians” are ones who are filled with the Holy Spirit, but clearly are only filled with the Holy Spirit if they pray in tongues.
- “Real Christians” are: Calvinists; Armenians; Pre-tribulation; Post-tribulation.
- “Real Christians” don’t watch: R-rated movies; TV at all.
- “Real Christians” only follow Piper.
- “Real Christians” don’t believe in: The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, .
- “Real Christians” DO believe in Santa Claus.
- “Real Christians” go on mission trips BUT only long-term ones, never short-term.
- “Real Christians” aren’t Catholics.
- “Real Christians” would never read The Message by Eugene Peterson.
- “Real Christians” are clearly Right-Wing Conservatives who work hard and want to decide how to share their hard earned money.
- “Real Christians” are clearly Left-Wing Liberals who work hard and want to decide how to share their hard earned money.
- “Real Christians” are pro-life.
- “Real Christians” aren’t homosexuals.
- “Real Christians” live in community and regularly confess their sins and weaknesses to one another, loving each other in the midst of their messes.
- This list could go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on…and frigging on! I just barfed a little in my mouth, type of on and on…
Why on earth would anyone who is seeking God OUTSIDE the church EVER in a MILLION years think it’s important to ever step foot into a church when “Real Christians” can’t even get along?
As I was doing a downward dog yesterday, on Halloween, meditating on God’s Word, enjoying the quiet before several pre-teen kids showed up at my house for dinner, trick-or-treating, and a slumber party, I was grieved in my heart. I was reminded of a trip Jason and I took 18 years ago to Siberia where we spent two months with teenagers working with missionaries and local churches to share God’s love with people who had been told God was dead under communist leadership.
One guy, however, remembered or had done some research of his own. He said, “You guys have so many different kinds of churches and denominations in America. It’s confusing. Who decides who is right and who is wrong? We have one church where we worship God together, all of us, different people, but one church, the Russian Orthodox Church. This is not confusing. It brings us together.”
And I’ve NEVER EVER, EVER forgotten our conversation. Because I was there, on a short-term mission trip, under the assumption everyone I met didn’t know God’s love for them and that it was my job to tell them just HOW to meet Him, of course, via “The Sinner’s Prayer.” Except for he did know God, via an orthodox way, living in a different culture, and who was I to judge his relationship with God?
I’ll tell you what a “real Christian” is…it’s someone who has heard all of the above statements and still comes out in awe of God’s goodness and love. It’s not adhering to behaviors for mere presentation or to set oneself apart, just for difference sake. No. It’s the Holy Spirit in us who allows people to know if we are followers of Christ, or not. A real Christian is a guy who can survive communism and still love and trust God.
I haven’t regularly attended the local church in almost 4 years now, and this after serving as a women’s pastor in two different churches. We didn’t leave our previous church because we were miffed or it didn’t suit our style or because it was or wasn’t perfect. (Heck, I have great stories of all the churches I’ve attended over the years, a post for another time…if those weren’t reasons to leave, I don’t know what is.) We left because we moved and didn’t feel we could do community with people over 50 minutes away. It was difficult to leave, but we knew God wanted us to be in community with people right where we lived. We really loved everyone Red Rocks, still do. We both served in leadership in different capacities and were blessed beyond what we even deserved as humans here on this earth by the love they poured into us. Actually, the way they did church is how church was/is meant to be done, on a practical day to day level. We actually discovered this when our son Noah was hospitalized. It was a start up church and we were loosely part of its roots, as we wrapped up responsibilities at another church, we would go once or twice a month while overlapping our former church. We went to some of the prayer meetings and fell in love with the families and their hearts, their vision for community and passion for the Lord.
Then Noah got sick and was hospitalized for 5 and a half months.
And that’s when this small group of people who hardly knew us started “doing church” with us, at The Children’s Hospital of Denver, right there in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, over tubes and machines, sometimes wearing face masks, but always bringing with them prayers, listening ears, shared tears, and meals. Meals for 5 months. And it wasn’t only the members of Red Rocks Church who brought the meals, but also friends and family who we did, and still do, life with. Nitty gritty. Up in each other’s business. The good, the bad, and the crazy. Real life. Authentic friendships, not afraid to sit with us as our son was dying, knowing they couldn’t offer any words to fix it, but simply being there, in it.
And it was hospital crib-side, with beeps and nurses and doctors, in and out, where we had church.
No steeple. No opening songs. No announcements or offering. No sermon or special song. The only formal dismissal the actual need to finally leave the hospital the day after our son passed away.
But intimacy with God Almighty was deepened there, in the PICU, alongside the cadence of Noah’s ventilator. My love of scripture grew as I crawled up in his crib and read it aloud to him, training him up in the way he should go, pointing him to God, or when I had to finally shower after days and I’d ask a nurse to read to him, whether they believed or not. And anyone who walked into his room, pro-athlete’s, firefighters, Nugget dancers, FBI choirs, comedians, specialists, even the cleaning crew, lingered a little longer, sensing something but maybe not knowing that they were sensing God’s holy presence, their very Maker and Lover of their souls, looking around at every wall, seeing God’s love and truth written on notecards displayed all over his room, written by Korean kids who had learned about their little brother in Christ, sick, dying in a hospital.
In 5 and a half months I only attended the physical building of our church one time, and that was to be baptized. Yet, in those 5 and a half months, I never “missed” church, but rather had it every. single. day. all. the. time. with whoever was in the room at the time.
“Well, that’s different. You had a kid in the hospital…it’s totally understandable why you weren’t attending church during that time.”
But see, I was attending church. And Church, the body of believers, was attending me and my family, and it was happening outside American Evangelical Enterprise church walls and instead inside the halls of a hospital, halls where sickness and dying was happening and hope was diminishing, and fear was gripping, not me, but others. The parents of the kid next door. Church happened when our community came to us in our need, providing plenty, and we were able to share that plenty with the parents of the other children. Church happened when we said, “Can we pray with you?” and encouraging them, not even knowing, or stopping to think, if they believed or if they would be offended, but praying because praying doesn’t hurt anyone.
And Church happened on Noah’s blog when men and women on every continent were praying for him, checking in regularly, praying and sending love and lifting my weary arms, providing cyber shoulders. And it happened when we were praying for those who were praying for us. Strangers no longer, but rather the Bride of Christ, the Church, coming together as like believers, not in mauve chairs in store front buildings with mega-kids’ programs and men’s breakfasts and ladies teas, but via the Internet, through prayer, the divine power of God at work because of the Holy Spirit in us, the Church.
Church is not a building, although it can function in one. But the day it is confined to one is a frightening thing, just as futile as trying to fit the Almighty Creator Loving God of the Universe into a teeny, tiny box.
If scripture says all the things Jesus did, if they were written down could not be contained in all the books on the earth, why do we try to contain the Church into a building on a corner with an introductory song, announcements, sermon, special song, offering, and dismissal?
Unlike Donald Miller, I absolutely connect to God through song. It’s really the only reason I go to a corner church. I TOTALLY suck at singing and cannot play any instruments, so thankfully God has ear plugs or filters or a sense of humor, or more rightly, grace, because He knows my heart and I mean it even if it’s croaky. I also am a kinetic learner, so I imagine what worshiping God in heaven will be like and I have to raise my hands to Him. I want to touch Him, even though I know I’d melt, but everything in me cries out to Him, so raising my arms is one way I express it. This is likely why Yoga works for me, too, because as I reach up before a swan dive, I’m looking up, praising Him, thanking Him I’m healthy enough to exercise His temple. As far as music goes and connecting to God, I took the cue from my grandfather when I was a child years ago at mass. We were singing, “How Great Thou Art,” and my grandpa was belting it out from his pew. He was singing with all of his might, but as a kid, I also could sense he was singing with all his heart, and it was about God and to God and, even as a kid, I could sense God’s presence in it all, and I wanted that same adoration to pour forth from my own heart to God. And I’ve even been moved in the same way when Bono, in my opinion a modern day David, is singing one song or another, or as Beethoven or Mozart plays. This doesn’t always happen in a church service as sometimes it’s rehearsed and then it’s over. Other times, however, I shut out the world and sing along, rehearsed or not, eyes shut and arms wide, the world a world away, and I’m in His presence, no matter what surrounds, not because I feel like it, but because HE IS AN AWESOME GOD AND HE DESERVES ADORATION.
My relationship with Him isn’t a religion where I do the same thing over and over (ie. mandatory weekend/mid-week attendance) and try to find Him in the repetition and program, conjuring up feelings once felt in a certain setting. My relationship with God happens in the day in and day out, the moment my eyes greet the day and before my feet even hit the floor.
I think that’s where I struggle with referring to the local church as a place for “corporate worship.” Because on any given Sunday, you or I can walk into more churches than not and find some opening songs FOR SURE meant to praise God (and I’m not questioning the intent or hearts of the musicians or the preachers…not the point here), a welcome, some announcements, a sermon, special song, offering and dismissal. Almost like we can drive into most towns of 25,000 or more and find a Walmart and a Target, along with a few other expected chains. “Corporate worship” implies everyone’s hearts coming together to worship God, where it’s all about Him. Rather, we are coming together, but to be fed.
I’ve read the Bible for 24 years…and not just read it but studied it. And so, not in an arrogant way, but because of the privilege of owning several Bibles which early believers simply did not have, there isn’t a sermon out there that hasn’t already been preached or that anyone who has been a believer a long time hasn’t heard. Sure, there are personal stories to add in order to make it relatable or relevant, I suppose, but there aren’t new sermons. Not that there has to be anything NEW. On the contrary, digging into the old is good and life giving. But is the point of the local church only to hear a sermon? What if it were simply a place to gather for singing songs to the Lord? What would happen then?
It’s branding and enterprise and when everyone is simply walking in, all facing forward, maybe a handshake or tow, then listening to one guy tell them a story they’ve read 17 times from the Bible sitting on our lap, sing a song or two, and turn and walk out the door for lunch, never to split up into small circles, discuss the scriptural text, dissect it, chew on it, wrestle with it, ask the Holy Spirit what He is speaking to them/us in the text and how we can carry it out, or confessing our sins to one another and praying for each other.
It’s this part where I think, well, I’m just not sure how this is “church” as it was meant to be.
I think our current model is broken, and even though this is tragic, it’s okay because it’s causing us to open our eyes and hearts and ask God, not how to improve it or even “fix it”, make it bigger or shinier, but rather to cry out, as once instructed, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” that kind of prayer, the kind which seeks His way of going about things.
Because Jesus wants to come back. He said so over 2000 years ago. And He meant it. But do we really think He wants to come back to Bridezilla?
The Catholics are doing it right with the whole confession thing at least, but scripturally we were meant to take it a step further and live honestly in community with one another, confessing our sins to each other, and praying, walking through the struggles as a family of believers. Instead we isolate because we don’t think we can confess our darkest of sins, so we walk in shame and simply show up and do church.
People think home churches are radical and weird. And by “people” I mean, likely some human beings, but if we dig into the text, the one we base this whole faith upon in the first place, that’s what “church” was…gatherings of believers in peoples homes. Profound. Not even edgy. Just so totally 2000 years ago…in a good way.
I don’t know. This post is long and it’s a can of worms, I realize. It’s just that the quote at the top by Richard Halverson so resonates with what I’ve sensed over the years, and how I’m feeling now, and how the guy in Siberia articulated, east of the Urals. I guess I’m wrestling with seeing how boxing the Magnificent God into a structure on a corner with services at 9 and 11 is the only way to fellowship with like believers.
This won’t be the end of my processing, for sure…thanks for sticking around if you got all the way down here to the end.